Judge Ponders Restrictions on Protests

Federal Judge Richard Matsch is now faced with the tricky proposition of balancing the rights of free speech with security and safety concerns in a post-Sept. 11 world.

 

He said as much Thursday - the day terrorist bombs ripped through London's transit system - after closing arguments in a civil suit filed by Citizens for Peace in Space against Colorado Springs.

 

The lawsuit centers on the anti-war group's belief that they were unfairly restricted from demonstrating outside a NATO conference in 2003 at the Broadmoor Resort.

 

Matsch said he will issue a written ruling.

 

The city has maintained that it gave the protesters adequate space to express their viewpoints outside a main access checkpoint where visiting defense ministers - including U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - were required to drive through. The city also said the protesters got plenty of media attention during the conference.

 

Thomas Marrese, the lawyer representing the city, provided witnesses to explain how delicate security considerations could be. For example, a law enforcement official testified that something as minor as a traffic accident could develop into an international crisis because in some of the participating countries, accidents are staged to divert attention while serious attacks are carried out.

 

"The realities of today's climate have to be considered," Matsch said.

 

The judge said he thought the founding fathers "could never have imagined" having to go through a screening process and metal detectors just to get into a courthouse now, but said, "That's the world in which we live."

 

He also said the First Amendment was "the most compelling and the most fragile" of the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

 

Marrese said in his closing arguments that a recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that supported Seattle's decision to make portions of its downtown off-limits to demonstrators during the volatile World Trade Organization meetings in 1999 validated Colorado Springs' decision to set up a restricted zone at the NATO conference.

 

That appeals court decision maintained Seattle was trying to prevent civil unrest.

 

But the six plaintiffs in the lawsuit, ranging in age from mid-30s to early 70s, had no track record of violent behavior and no history of arrests for violent behavior in more than 20 years of peace activism.

 

Mari Newman, one of the group's lawyers, said the group could have easily been allowed into the secure zone because all previously had agreed to background checks and identity checks and would have walked on foot to the disputed area - a stretch of sidewalk outside the International Center where NATO officials and the media were encamped for the two-day conference.

 

She said the city's arguments about car bomb threats and possible blast radiuses were irrelevant to the case and that the World Trade Organization argument had little bearing on this issue.

 

"These are not dangerous people," she said.

 

Newman also took umbrage at the city's claim that NATO's wishes for not allowing demonstrators near the International Center trumped the rights to free speech.

 

"The federal Constitution doesn't give way to the will of other countries," she said.

 

She also blasted the city's key witness, who testified he had a handshake agreement with many of the conference's participants not to allow protesters near the International Center.

 

"The Constitution can't be eviscerated with a handshake," Newman said.

 

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